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An Artist Is Deconstructing Comics into Grids in Order to Challenge Power Structures

Yale first-year MFA student Johnathan Payne folds comic strips into lattices, creating a new space for femme, brown, queer, and black mythologies.

Antwaun Sargent

Antwaun Sargent

Johnathan Payne, Untitled (DDCC), 2016, shredded comic books and adhesive, 94x94, detail. All images courtesy of the artist.

In 1965, Black Panther entered Marvel’s pantheon of superheroes in Fantastic Four, Issue 52. T'Challa was the first black superhero, created to capture the imagination and ascribe a supernatural power to blackness. In 2016, Ta-Nehisi Coates authored a new era of Black Panther; an independent, fully constructed narrative, existing in a universe of his own. Despite recent moves to diversify the comic book image, the superhero has existed as a reflection of white heteronormative power and culture, with very few versions being authored by minority storytellers. This absence led artist Johnathan Payne to create Constructions, an ongoing series of intricate lattices made from old comic books including Thor, Coneheads, and Deathstroke the Terminator, among others.

The lattices were recently on display in the group exhibition, Viewpoints, at Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco, and were inspired by a collaboration with Payne's photographer friend D’Angelo Williams, explains the artist to The Creators Project. Says Payne, “I began thinking about a shredded strip of paper as a mark, or a thread. I started to play with color, repetition, and pattern using these strips. What resulted were these large, intricate collages.” He explains, “My Constructions oscillate between painting, sculpture, and textile art, and I wanted to define the work in relation to the word ‘construct,’ both as verb and a noun. They’re constructed physically, and they exist as a construct of a collection of elements within my practice.”

Untitled (Speculative Lover), 2016, shredded comic books and adhesive, 94x94, detail.

Constructions' found-object collaging of comics imagery is heavily influenced by post-minimalism and artists such as Sheila Hicks, Odili Donald Odita, Agnes Martin, Tony Feher, El Anatsui, and Kerry James Marshall. In shredding the strips, Payne establishes a rich material culture that forms textile-like objects of different heroic narratives. Untitled (DDCC) and Untitled (Speculative Lover), two gridlike lattices, engage the language of geometric abstraction. “My use of comics is directly influenced by the work of Ray Yoshida, a Chicago Imagist painter who made intensely intricate collaged grids of extracted forms from comic books, a series he called Comic Abstractions,” explains Payne.

Untitled (Throb), 2016, shredded comic books and adhesive, 83x63, detail.

His gestural reconfigurations involve folding representational images and narratives into a series of interwoven triangles and squares, in turn forming large rectangles that challenge what the artist calls the “authenticity of comic images.“ Explains Payne, “The political aspect, is an act of expansion through destruction of the material, a transforming of the potential of the images and narratives to be.”

The artist is a first-year MFA student at the Yale University School of Art’s painting program. His labor-intensive process creates a new construction of superheroes, creating a new space for femme, brown, queer, and black mythologies. Payne explains, “There’s a lot of action, movement, and gesture within comic images. I wanted the work to embody that, but to also oscillate between that and a meditative stillness resulting from a tactile process. It’s a way for me to create another possibility for looking.”

Untitled (Spiraling #1), 2016, shredded comic books and adhesive, 21x21

He says, “I am interested in how abstraction can be an embodiment of an expansive black or queer identity which is usually subject to what people want it to be.”

For more information on the Construction series, click here.

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